For as bad as Pitt's first two games were, and as good as the next two were, Friday's loss to Syracuse was somewhere in the middle. Yes, the Panthers made some silly mental mistakes at crucial times, but there were plenty of positives to take away from the Carrier Dome. The defense, in particular, played extremely well. In fact, over the past three games, Pitt's defense has given up only TWO touchdowns. One against Virginia Tech, on an 85-yard pass, and one on the first drive of the game Friday. The only other times opponents have reached the end zone against Pitt in the last three games have been on turnovers or special teams.
That said, let's get down to business. Here's a link to my game story from Saturday, and here's yesterday's follow-up about the areas Pitt needs to clean up moving forward. Now, on to the position groups...
Quarterback: Despite a couple of poor decisions, Tino Sunseri had another solid day at the office. He was 25 of 33 for 319 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. On third down, Sunseri was 10/11 for 150 yards, and the one incompletion arguably should have been caught by Drew Carswell on Pitt's final drive. Sunseri took one sack on third down late in the game, but other than that he was fantastic when Pitt absolutely needed a completion. He was sacked five times, and on some of those he definitely could have gotten the ball off quicker. On the final drive, he probably should have recognized the cornerback blitz Syracuse was bringing and shifted his protection accordingly. Also, the intentional grounding penalty he took on that drive was puzzling, since there was pressure, but he made no effort to avoid the rush and simply lofted the ball out of bounds from the pocket. Overall, though, this was a continuation of the Sunseri we saw against Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb. Some things to improve on, but generally a very strong performance.
Running backs: The running game really struggled against the Syracuse run defense. Paul Chryst said the Orange didn't stack the box as the game wore on, but they were able to essentially shut down the Panthers running game for 27 total yards on 37 carries (that's 0.7 yards per carry). Granted, a lot of those negative yards came on sacks on Sunseri, but it still wasn't good. Rushel Shell was limited to just one carry by some back spasms that flared up this week, and that contributed to Pitt's running game struggles. Shell's absence really showed, as he probably could have provided some relief for Ray Graham, who carried 24 times for 64 yards. In the last two games, Shell and Graham have been a fantastic one-two punch. Chryst has been able to mix and match depending on who was running the best, but with Shell out, he had to stick with Graham. Isaac Bennett only got three carries, and gained two yards.
Wide receivers: Given that Sunseri had another 300-yard game, it was another nice day for the receivers. Devin Street had a career-high 10 catches for 130 yards. He found ways to get open against the Orange defense, despite facing some double-coverage early on. Street admitted today that he likes playing in the dome, but he has also just been coming on since the beginning of the season. He told me after the game that he felt like his relationship with Sunseri has developed this season, and it's showing on the field. Mike Shanahan had four catches for 83 yards (46 of which came on one third-down reception), and Cam Saddler added two catches for 35 yards, including one on a key third down. The receiving corps has really impressed me so far this season, and, so far, they're one of the strengths of this team.
Tight ends: All three tight ends (Hubie Graham, Drew Carswell, and J.P. Holtz) each had one reception. They also have to assume some of the responsibility for the poor running game, but overall a fairly quiet game from the tight ends. It was nice to see Holtz back involved in the passing game after a few quiet games. Also, good for Pitt to get Graham back on the field after missing a couple of games with a clavicle injury. Pitt's passing game has been rolling the last couple of weeks, but there's still plenty of room to get the tight ends more involved if they want to.
Offensive line: After taking some steps forward against Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb, this is a unit that had a major step back against the Orange. The stats are bad: five sacks allowed and just 27 rushing yards. The offensive line was also responsible for three false start penalties, all of which came at crucial times late in the game. The same problems that cost them against Youngstown State and Cincinnati reared their heads again. Pitt remains vulnerable to the speed rush off the edge in passing situations. It didn't help that the Panthers weren't getting yards on the ground on first and second down, and were left with a lot of third-and-longs. That let Syracuse's defensive ends pin their ears back and get around the tackles to put pressure on Sunseri on third down. The big sack, on the corner blitz, wasn't the offensive line's fault, per se, but someone should have recognized the blitz and made sure they had it covered.
Chryst said today that the five starters are very clearly the five best offensive lineman they have on the team, so there won't be any changes coming soon. The group did show flashes in the last two games, so they'll have to go back and look at what was working there that changed against the orange.
Defensive line: Aaron Donald returned after missing the Gardner-Webb game, so that's obviously good news. He and fellow defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell each got a sack on Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. The line didn't generally get a ton of pressure on Nassib, but the Panthers generally didn't blitz that much. On the ground, the Orange gained 120 yards on 33 carries, a very respectable 3.6 yards per carry for the Pitt defense. Syracuse sort of dinked-and-dunked the Panthers to death for a touchdown on the first drive, but after that the defensive stiffened up considerably. The line was solid enough to prevent any big running plays, and that's really the top priority against an offensive like Syracuse's.
Linebackers: Overall, a fairly solid game for this unit, as well. Todd Thomas finally made his return to action, and finished with one assisted tackle. He'll rotate in with Eric Williams at the SAM linebacker spot, and should see more playing time as he gets closer and closer to 100 percent. In fact, all three linebacker spots saw the second-string guys slide in at some point or another. Shane Gordon (3 tackles, 1 TFL) came out banged up at one point and Dan Mason went in at middle linebacker for a couple of meaningful snaps. It's unlikely Mason will get back to the player he was pre-injury, but there's literally no medical explanation for how he's doing what he's doing now, so I wouldn't count the kid out. Manny Williams also came off injured midway through and didn't play the rest of the game.Nicholas Grigsby went in for him at the WILL linebacker spot. Chryst didn't know the severity of Manny's injury after the game, so we'll wait and see on that. He's a guy who has really played well for the Panthers this season after a relatively unheralded career thus far.
Secondary: The corners and safeties held Nassib, the Big East's leading passer going into the game, to 19 of 30 for 185 yards. That's pretty good. K'Waun Williams had a pick in the end zone that ended a possible Syacuse scoring chance. It was a pretty poor throw by Nassib, but Williams made a good play to turn on the ball and bring in the catch. The Orange receivers had some numbers, but the cornerbacks prevent any big plays. Williams banged up his knee and didn't return, but said afterwards that it wasn't a serious injury.Cullen Christian went in for Williams, and looked solid.
Andrew Taglianetti worked in a lot at the nickelback spot, and Ray Vinopal got in when Pitt went to its dime package, which was a fair amount. As the Panthers face some more spread teams down the stretch, I'd expect this look from the defense a lot more. It makes sense, since safety is probably Pitt's deepest defensive position, so getting all four of those guys on the field can really help in passing situations.
Special teams: Kevin Harper went 2 for 3, with makes from 40 and 27 yards, and a miss from 42. You could argue that, had he been perfect, Pitt would have won, but that miss came early in the game and 42-yard field goals are hardly automatic in college football. Harper has been inconsistent this season, but he's really the only option for Pitt at kicker right now, so all Chryst can do is try and coach him up and, most importantly, keep his confidence high despite some early misses.
Matt Yoklic has impressed me at punter this season. I know, it's a punter. But still, he's been able to consistently pin teams deep in their own territory, and that can play a big role especially in a low-scoring game like this one. Against the Orange, Yoklic averaged 41.2 yards on his five punts and had three inside the Syracuse 20-yard line.
Coaching: This game was really a challenge for Chryst and his staff from a coaching perspective. The running game clearly wasn't working, but the game was still close so they didn't want to go to the air extensively like they did against Cincinnati. The commitment to the run looked like it was going to pay off in the fourth quarter, when they were getting some chunks on the ground, but the drive stalled short in the red zone.
Chryst spoke today about his decision not to run the ball three times on the final drive once they got in the red zone. Basically, it was respect for the Syracuse offense that made him want to go for a touchdown and not settle for the field goal and a two-point lead. In retrospect, it obviously looks bad because they didn't even get a field goal attempt, but I think Chryst made the right choice here. A two-point lead with a few minutes to play and giving the ball back to the Orange would not have been a good position, so I think going for the touchdown makes sense. It's up to the players to know the situation and make smart decisions, which Sunseri didn't on that play.
From a big picture perspective, it's not a good sign that this team is still dealing with self-inflicted mistakes (false starts, missed blitz pickups, etc.) five games into the season. Chryst certainly has his work cut out for him with Louisville coming to town this week, but he's already upset one top-20 opponent this season, so I wouldn't count the Panthers out.